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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesGideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 57. Farewell, "Votaress"
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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 57. Farewell, 'Votaress' Post by :mkproductions Category :Long Stories Author :George Washington Cable Date :May 2012 Read :2808

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Gideon's Band: A Tale Of The Mississippi - Chapter 57. Farewell, "Votaress"


Montezuma Bend ... Delta ... Delta Bend ... Friar's Point ... Kangaroo Point ... Horseshoe Bend and Cut-off. Some, at least, of these we remember. At mention of them the Gilmores and "California" smiled--behind Ramsey: such a different, surpassingly different Ramsey!

Near the _Enchantress's bell these four and old Joy were gathered about Gideon Hayle, Watson, and Hugh Courteney--such an inspiringly different Hugh! Two or three showed a divided attention, letting an occasional glance stray down the waters ahead, where Old Town Bend swung from west to south.

At the same moment, in Horseshoe Cut-off, some twelve or fifteen miles below, another swift, handsome steamer, upward bound--the great river could hardly yet show more than one handsomer--swept into the north from an easterly course under Island Sixty-four and pointed up the middle of the stream to pass between Sixty-three and Sixty-two where, at the head of the reach, they parted the river into three channels and widened it to more than a league. She would have been an animating sight if only for the fact that every soul aboard who was not just then engaged in running her was at the guards of one or another of her graceful decks. The forecastle was darkened by her crew standing in a half circle about the capstan, her larboard pantry guards were crowded with white-jackets, her roofs were gay with ladies and children. In elated oblivion of the charming picture presented by their own boat and themselves, all were awaiting a spectacle which their pilots and captain had said would surely be met within the next hour's run.

Although behind them was a tortuous fifty miles in which hardly more signs of human life had been seen or heard than if their way had been on the open Atlantic, the beauty of the wilderness alone, transfigured in the lights of the declining day, might well have satisfied the eye. A red sun was just touching the horizon. Its beams and the blue shadows that divided them lay level, miles long, athwart the glassy stream and its green and gray forests and tapered and vanished in a low eastern haze. The tints of autumn already prevailed along the shores, and the indolent waters mirrored the reversed images of the two islands in outlines clearer than their own and from bank to bank took on in enriched hues the many colors of the sky. At the far end of the reach, between and somewhat beyond the islands, stood well out of the shrunken flood a sand-bar, its middle crested green and gold with young poplars and willows, all its ill favor made picturesque and the whole mass glorified by the sunset. By this bar the waters of the central channel were again divided, north and south, and the steamer, with another eastward turn, straightened up for the southern passage between the bar and Sixty-three.

"We'll pass her close," said one of the boat's family to those who hung on his words. "In this low water she's got to come round the bar and well over to the left bank, same as us."

On the boiler deck and on the roof passengers of the kind that see for themselves pointed out to the kind that see only what they are shown the smoke of another boat, across the forests on the Arkansas side, in Old Town Bend. There were ways for some to know even at that distance that she was a craft they had never yet seen, but every two minutes the distance grew less by a mile. Presently, as the nearer boat, giving the bar's eastern head a wide berth, swung once more into the north, the _Enchantress glided into view on the larboard bow hardly two miles away. But before the _Enchantress as well, looking south across the same interval, gleamed a picture worthy of her delight. For there came the _Votaress_, curling white ribbons from her cutwater, her people waving and cheering, a swivel barking from her prow, and the whistles high up between her chimneys roaring in long salute.

By no premeditation could the unpremeditated scene have been finer. The _Votaress_, as she took the wider circuit against the Mississippi shore, caught the whole power of the setting sun on all her nearer side while she swept close along an undivided curtain of autumn forest drenched in the same sunlight and quaking to her sudden breeze. North and west of her, where the sand-bar lay bare of trees, the _Enchantress_, larger, stronger, swifter, moved in her own shade but was set against the far splendor of a saffron, green, and crimson sky in which the fiery sun showed only its upper half sinking beneath the landscape. The lights of all her decks, just lit, gave no vivid ray but glinted like gems on a court lady. Her bridal whiteness was as pure hid from the sunbeams as her sister's bathed in them. From both the high black smoke streamed away through the evening calm and from their twinkling wheels the foam swept after them like trains of lace. We speak for our poet, who, lacking fit imagery of his own, recalled one of Jenny Lind's songs:

"I see afar thy robe of snow,
I see thy dark hair wildly flow,
I hear thy airy step so light,
Thou com'st to wish thy love good night.
Good night, my love, good night."

Good night, _Votaress_! He could not know, nor Ramsey, nor any of those among whom they stood, that these bends were never again to see you in your beauty--though in tragedy, yes! yes! They knew that in the shipyards of the Ohio you were to receive a beautiful rejuvenation; but knew not that then, as a dove may be caught by a lynx, you were to be caught by a great war, a war greater than the great river, and should return to these scenes a transport; a poor, scarred, bedraggled consort to gunboats; slow reptilian monsters of iron ugliness and bellowing ferocity. They knew not of days when you must swarm with blue soldiers--including Marburg--sometimes hot and merry for battle, sometimes shot-torn, fever-wasted, yellow-eyed, a human rubbish of camp and siege, lighter part of the deadly price of conquered strongholds and fallen cities--Forts Henry and Donelson, Columbus, Island Ten, Fort Pillow, Port Hudson, Vicksburg, Memphis; or that, after all, in recovered decency, honored poverty, you should wear out a gentle old age as a wharf-boat to your unspeakable inferiors. And neither could they, those voyagers on the new steamer, foresee the happier vision of their _Enchantress living through the war charmedly unscathed, sharing the palmiest days of the Mississippi's navigation without ever being surpassed in speed or beauty, even by younger Courteney boats, and at last falling asleep peaceably at her moorings hard by the vast riverside railway warehouses on the outskirts of a greater New Orleans.

All this forces its way through the mind while we see the meeting boats cover half the run between them. On the _Enchantress a deck-hand mounted the capstan.

"They're going to sing," hurriedly said Ramsey to Hugh. "I wish they'd sing ''Lindy Lowe' that I've heard about!"

And whether by happy chance or on some signal dropped down from him or because the chantey was a new one and the crew were glad to show it off, it was chosen. The two steamers passed close with a happy commotion throughout both and the song swelled. Then the wooded crest of the bar hid each from each, and Hugh turned to Gideon: "Now, commodore, if Miss Hayle is willing I'd like to take you both below and show you over the boat--before supper."

When their descent brought them to the boiler deck the song was yet in full swing. When, passing on down, they reached the engine room the fact was amusingly clear to many on all decks, among them the Gilmores, the Californian, and Watson, that the singers had lit on a new bearing for their lines and were singing them now in compliment to a certain two whose story was by this time known to all on board. Whether, back between the sweeping cranks and shafts of the two great engines and wheels, behind the "doctor" and the "donkey" and with Hugh and Ramsey at his elbows, the alert Gideon heard the song at all was doubtful; so deep in debate were the two men, the quiet and the loud, on dimensions and powers: length, beam, hold, stroke, diameters of cylinders and of wheels, in such noted cases as the _Chevalier_, the _Eclipse_, the _J. M. White_, the _Natchez_, _Antelope_, _Paragon_, _Quakeress_, and _Autocrat_. The three were there yet when the song's last echo died, with Island Sixty-four eastward astern, Sixty-five southward ahead, the brief twilight failing and the supper bell ringadang-dinging.

At table a far-away whistle softly roared and the _Enchantress sonorously responded.

"A Hayle boat," said Ramsey to Hugh; "the _Regent_."

"And we're singing 'Lindy' again!" said Mrs. Gilmore.

Gideon, busy talking a few seats away, talked straight on, but a cloud on his brow showed now that he had heard the song the earlier time. Every one tried hard to listen to him and the melody with the same ears. Under the table somebody's toe had no better manners than gently to beat time.

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